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The Future of Higher Ed: A Community College Perspective

For community colleges to realize their mission to support both students and the community, they must collaborate broadly at high levels and create opportunities for Workforce Development.

With the amount of disruption and change higher education has faced in the past few years, the future can look muddy. But there’s an increasingly growing need for workforce programming that isn’t going away anytime soon, and community colleges are positioned to thrive. In this interview, Josh Baker discusses the role community colleges play in driving success within their community, finding a middle ground between academic and workforce programming and the change it takes to serve the new modern learner.  

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How do you see the community college playing a role in driving success and growth for its community?

Josh Baker (JB): Community colleges should earn the reputation for solving workforce challenges. We must step up in more seriously to earn that reputation. We must be more proactive.

I worry that if community colleges are not more aggressive in meeting workforce needs, then other organizations will replace us as key providers of short-term trainings. Historically, we’re good at providing one- to two-year programs. Anything shorter than that we sometimes struggle with. Most colleges have not figured out how to do short-term training in a financially viable way. We have to own this space.

Evo: There’s a desire to find a middle ground between academic and workforce programming. What’s behind that transition in terms of determining our mission and purpose?

JB: Community colleges are great with general education and transfer curriculum. We have made such great progress with engaging teaching practices and stronger articulations. Transfer will never leave us—it’s core to our mission. However, it’s time for community colleges to fully embrace our role in Workforce Development. The world has changed. Many people are rejecting the value of a four-year degree. They want pathways that are more directly connected to careers and earnings. 

Additionally, if we really believe in equity work, we will develop programs for the students we don’t have on our campus. With flexible, learn-and-earn programs, many members of our communities will be able to participate in our programs and move into careers. No training is terminal, and we are providing the most amazing pathways to prosperity. Workforce pathways are emerging as the most attractive transfer option. 

Evo: What does that dynamism entail for community colleges, and how does it change the way they serve their learners?

JB: For years we have talked about the value of short-term, stackable, certificates. The nature of the job market is forcing us to lean into this with greater intensity, and I love it. New programming we’re designing must fit adults coming in looking for something short term. We offer Amazon web services, Salesforce and other free short-term trainings because of grants. These offerings are crowded. Many participants already have bachelor’s degrees; many are working but want to learn a new skill. We are creating new programs that have threads of competency-based, credit and noncredit options tied to existing or new jobs. The enrollment challenges have created a beautiful opportunity to design the next version of higher education.

Evo: What does it take to enact some of this change when our models around student and enrollment management have been established and maintained for decades?

JB: It’s really complicated and requires a dedicated team to find solutions. There are so many technical reasons why we should not be able to be this responsive. Our faculty and staff thrive off student success stories. They understand the value of what we do, and they are making this possible. We have credit and noncredit students in the same classroom, working side by side. We are trying to make it so potential students can easily see short-term and AAS programs on our website and understand the difference between the two. This is our next step.

From a policy side, we need our representatives and state and federal reps to adjust to keep pace with the world. We don’t just want their permission to innovate—we need their support and leadership. 

Evo: Can you briefly describe the debate around short-term Pell?

JB: In the past, some individuals—or even populations—were tracked into certain paths. We certainly need to make sure we learn from that mistake. However, work to create nationwide pathways work has made it easier to advance in education and career, and we need to emphasize those remarkable pathways. Short-term training should lead to additional certificates and degrees. Everything stacks, and you can always advance.

Another concern is that the short-term Pell would encourage institutions to offer training that does not lead to jobs. There certainly needs to be some level of accountability and ethics in our offerings. I believe we’re seeing a large group of legislators meeting in the middle and trying to do what is best for the students. Short-term Pell is needed in this economy and will be vital to help community colleges embrace the entirety of their mission.

Evo: How are you tackling this misperception?

JB: We’ve had several community college representatives work with their legislators. There’s been a lot of progress, and it comes down to working across the aisle and finding a solution. We need to continue to invite federal policy-makers to the table to be part of forward-thinking solutions.

Evo: What changes can senior leaders start to implement at their campuses to prepare for the evolving future of flexible, career-oriented programming and building lifelong relationships with students?

JB: All good presidents try to shape their culture around the student. We talk about our students in every decision and get specific about who they are. We even describe at-risk students and discuss how to connect them to careers.

We must create systems that support and develop students’ confidence, clarity of the pathway and confidence in earnings at the end. We must design everything around the student experience.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about creating an ecosystem policy environment designed for the future of higher ed?

JB: We need the Department of Education to be a partner in innovation. We will need higher levels of collaboration than we have previously seen. Maybe it’s new policy or just utilizing flexibility in definitions as we solve workforce needs.

There’s a risk to higher ed’s value proposition. Workforce Development provides the opportunity for colleges to take equity work to the next level and be true to the value proposition we are selling.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.